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What Is Actually Happening: 2023

The collection of writings by Alfred Delp, S.J. which I mentioned a couple of weeks ago has a long introduction by Thomas Merton. I'm not a Merton enthusiast, having found what I've read of his work (not all that much) a somewhat mixed bag, but this essay, dated October 1962, is excellent.

Fr. Delp reminds us that somewhere in the last fifty years we have entered a mysterious limit set by Providence and have entered a new era. We have, in some sense, passed a point of no return, and it is both useless and tragic to continue to live in the nineteenth century.... [T]here has been a violent disruption of society and a radical overthrow of that modern world which goes back to Charlemagne.

Now, sixty years after Merton wrote this, roughly eighty years since Delp wrote, the truth of these words is hardly arguable. The end of the Christian era and its impending replacement by something yet to be known had already been a frequent topic of notice and speculation since sometime in the 19th century and has continued ever since, so neither Delp nor Merton can be credited with any unusual insight on that point alone. The difference between them and, say, Matthew Arnold ("two worlds, one dead") or Yeats ("what rough beast") was that they were seeing the likely shape of the new age: violent totalitarianism.

Delp was, naturally, speaking mostly, and with the utmost personal concern, of Nazism and the devastating war it had brought upon the world. And much of Merton's essay takes up a similar theme. After quoting Delp that "Modern man is not even capable of knowing God," Merton says:

In order to  understand these harsh assertions by Fr. Delp we must remember they were written by a man in prison, surrounded by Nazi guards. When he speaks of "modern man," he is in fact speaking of the Nazis or of their accomplices and counterparts.

Delp and Merton both feared that violent totalitarianism might be the most characteristic face of the new age, though both were wise enough to see that it was only the face, and that the inner nature of the thing involved, in fact required, a revolution in the idea of what human life is, what it is for, and what it can be. 

The Soviet Union continued to carry the totalitarian banner until 1990. And when it fell there was a sigh of relief: that danger had been quashed, maybe or even probably forever, and modernity, understood as a general application of classical liberalism, was free to continue on the wide bright road illuminated by the twin beacons of Science and Freedom. But liberalism had either turned into or been replaced by something else: the same philosophical or religious disease that had produced fascism and communism, the faith and hope that mankind (or, in the case of fascism, a certain subset thereof) can achieve self-salvation by transforming the immanent world.

This involves the liberation of mankind, either collectively or individually or both, from the limitations which thwart us. It requires, first, liberation from God, who always in one way or another says "Thou shalt not" to something that man deeply wants to do. And then it involves all other constraints once thought (still thought by many) to be an essential part of the way things are, not subject to removal. These include, especially include, physical reality. As for moral reality--well, is there any morality apart from that which produces a result which makes us happy? And don't trouble yourself too much about analyzing the nature of happiness: how can it be anything but a condition of comfort in both mind and body? And every person will have his own view of what that entails.

In apparent, but not actual, contradiction, this total liberation requires molding and controlling people to make them fit inhabitants of the new age. If it doesn't begin with explicit totalitarianism, it eventually arrives there, because people won't naturally become what the ideology requires that they become. The fanatical progressivism that has seized so much of our culture is of this cloth. At bottom it's of a piece with fascism and communism, in that it is an attempt to create a new humanity. It isn't very violent now and may never be, because it exercises so much power without violence, and is steadily gaining more. If it can, for instance, close off certain important lines of work to anyone who dissents from its program, or shut down the public expression of dissenting views, it doesn't need violence. (If you think it isn't working on those and achieving some results, you aren't paying attention.)

I'm hardly the first or only person to make these basic observations. I'm working up to saying two things:

1) We can now see pretty clearly the shape of the new ideal of civilization that is replacing the Christian one. And we can see that it is in essence a product of the same force that produced fascism and communism, even though progressivism, loathes the former and doesn't take the crimes of the latter very seriously, and in principle abhors violence. But compulsion may be exercised without violence. Relatively non-violent totalitarianism--"soft totalitarianism," as some have called it--may succeed where violent hard totalitarianism failed.

2) The thing that I refer to as a "force" is the spirit of Antichrist. I've never been one, and still am not one, to make judgments about whether we are or are not in the end times. Maybe we are, maybe we aren't. And I don't claim that we are now or soon will be under the rule of the Antichrist. What I think is pretty clear is that the spiritual driving force of the current effort to remake humanity is the same one that will become or will produce, if it hasn't already, the Antichrist. "You will become as gods." It may not be the regime of the actual Antichrist, but it is of the Antichrist.

Rod Dreher recently quoted a letter of Pope Benedict

We see how the power of the Antichrist is expanding, and we can only pray that the Lord will give us strong shepherds who will defend his church in this hour of need from the power of evil.

In short, this is What Is Actually Happening, and it's important that Christians recognize it and have no illusions about it, especially as the humanitarian aspects of the Antichristic spirit are often superficially similar to Christian ethics. The essential difference is that the former always points and leads away from God, where the latter always points and leads toward him.


These thoughts were provoked not only by Delp and Merton, but by a remark in a fascinating book which I recently began to read: Jacques Barzun's history of the modern world, From Dawn to Decadence. This was another case when I picked up a book from the library discard shelf, let it sit around for a couple of years, and then, when I moved recently and had to pack up the books, considered giving it back to the library. But I leafed through it, read the opening pages, and decided to keep it.

The book begins with the Protestant revolution. In discussing Puritanism, Barzun says this:

Revolutions paradoxically begin by promising freedom and then turn coercive and "puritanical," to save themselves from both discredit and reaction.

Is that the meaning of the frenzied efforts by fanatical progressives to restrict any and all speech that contradicts their views or even causes them distress? Many institutions and areas of life are now well under their control, but there is certainly reaction. Maybe the intensity of the effort to suppress it is indicative of a grip not yet as tight as it wishes to be.

Carl Trueman: The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self

Subtitle: "Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution"

It's always true of human societies that serious and seemingly, perhaps actually, insoluble problems exist, but there are degrees, and it's more the case now than ordinarily. It's not always the case that an entire civilization plunges, as ours has done, into ideas and behavior that are obviously self-destructive and can only result in decline, possibly collapse. In some ways these are even manifestly crazy, in the sense of being fundamentally at odds with reality.

Those who recognize and are properly alarmed by this are frequently engaged in a somewhat desperate search for a solution, usually at least partly political, because our culture is now very heavily politicized. But I don't think our problems can be solved in any decisive way. I don't see how the plunge can be stopped, because the most powerful elements of society are passionately committed to it. We'll just have to ride it out and hope that it won't be fatal (whatever that might mean).

Obviously there is much that can be done here and now to slow it down, at least, and to ameliorate the harm being done. And I admire those doing the difficult work of--to choose one example--resisting the teaching of sick ideologies to school children. Nor is the organized political opposition insignificant or (entirely) ineffective, flawed though much of it is. More power to all of them.

But I've lost much if not all of my interest in talking about solutions. What interests me more now is the question of how we got here. Or, more accurately and importantly: where the hell are we? What exactly is going on? Philip Rieff's Triumph of the Therapeutic shed a great deal of light on those questions. In this book, Carl Trueman brings Rieff's insights, published almost sixty years ago, and those of others into the present. The others are, principally, Alisdair Macintyre and Charles Taylor. And now I'm going to have to read them, too.

If you want to understand why this thing that we call the culture war is so intractable, you might read part 1 of Trueman's book. (It's probably in your local library, as it's in mine and I live in a fairly small town.) There he lays out the situation: the fundamental difference is between those who view the human situation as fundamentally a matter of finding and accepting one's place in an objective external order, usually (maybe necessarily?) a sacred order, and those--the more representatively modern school--who see the individual as more or less creating or inventing himself, and, as a natural corollary, wishing or demanding that the world accommodate, or be subjected to, the self. When the two parties disagree, as they now do

...there is no real argument taking place. There is no common authority on which they might agree to the terms of debate in order to determine exactly what it is they are debating. The one looks to a sacred order, the other to matters that do not rise above the concerns of the immanent order.

If there is no reasoned debate, there can be no reasoned compromise, only a stalemate of warring armies. And that's probably the best we can hope for in the near future.

The rest of the book traces the development of this contemporary concept of the self, and the social and political implications of it. First came Rousseau's assertion that man is "born free but everywhere in chains," the chains being or at least beginning with the degrading and corruption influence of Society. From there to the sexual revolution and its current phase is a grimly fascinating story, running through Freud, Marx, and 20th century figures such as William Reich and Herbert Marcuse, and summarized in these two passages:

...the rise of the sexual revolution was predicated on fundamental changes in how the self is understood. The self must first be psychologized; psychology must then be sexualized; and sex must be politicized.

To follow Rousseau is to make identity psychological. to follow Freud is to make psychology, and thus identity, sexual. To mesh this combination with Marx is to make identity--and therefore sex--political.... To transform society politically, then, one must transform society sexually and psychologically....

"The personal is the political," said the feminists. I always took this to mean that, for instance, when a husband leaves his socks on the floor, and his wife picks them up, a significant political event has occurred. And I think they did mean that. But Trueman demonstrates that it also means something much larger, something absolute, something bigger than anything else in the minds of the sexual revolutionaries (a category which includes a large subset of progressives but not all). This is the long-developing revolution which became a truly mass movement in the late 1960s, and is now, as is often observed, in effect a militant religion. Its strictures were foreshadowed by Reich, who believed

...that the state must be used to coerce families and, where necessary, actively punish those who dissent from the sexual liberation being proposed. In short, the state has the right to intervene in family matters because the family is potentially the primary opponent of political liberation through its cultivation and policing of traditional sexual codes.

All this seems to me essential for understanding what's happening, which is to say that this is an essential book if you want that understanding. It is not the only pathology at work, though. Trueman does not deal with directly political problems, chief of which in my opinion is the mysterious apparent death wish of a large segment of Western culture, the hatred and repudiation of its own past and ferocious denunciation of those who persist in valuing its traditions, especially of course its religious tradition, and who refuse to make the expected acts of repudiation. There is probably a connection between this and the hypertrophied narcissism described by Truman, but I'm not sure what it is.



I was going to say more about Vatican II and the article by Larry Chapp to which Marianne linked in the comments on the previous post, but I'm in the process of moving (not far, still same locale) and both time and internet access are limited. Next week....

Two Smart People Discuss the Disintegration of Culture

I'm trying very hard, and so far successfully, to stifle my impulse to talk about the political crisis of the United States. The crisis is far from abating. It's quieter now that the frenzy surrounding Trump has ceased, but the basic situation hasn't changed, and I'm trying not to spend too much time fretting about the likely outcomes, which seem to me to range from not good to very bad. (All right, I'll go this far: I think the most likely is a continued decline toward a situation like that which has often existed in Latin American countries: a corrupt pseudo-republican government, a small class of very wealthy and powerful people, and a great many poor and almost-poor people.)

The civilizational crisis that underlies the political crisis, though, still engages my attention and still seems worth commenting on as part of my effort to grasp it. A British novelist named Paul Kingsnorth has emerged as an articulate and perceptive voice on that subject. This video is an hour of his conversation with a Canadian artist/thinker name Jonathan Pageau, previously unknown to me. It's very much worth watching as a sort of overview. The most interesting part to me begins a little less than halfway through; the first 25 minutes or so are introductory. I don't entirely agree with him about the importance of climate change, but that's relatively unimportant--I certainly agree that our culture's relationship to the created order is pretty sick. 

Rod Dreher has quoted and written about Kingsnorth frequently, and today is another instance. I have not yet read the First Things and other links in that piece, but as this post has been sitting half-finished for over a week and I'm ready to be done with it, I'm going to go ahead and say that they're most likely very much worth reading. 

Jeremy Beer on Technocracy, Liberalism, etc.

Front Porch Republic's magazine, Local Culture, devoted its last issue to Christopher Lasch. One of the highlights is this lengthy and excellent essay by Jeremy Beer: "Limits, Risk Aversion, and Technocracy." It explores the curious juxtaposition of license and coercion that is now such a visible feature of the leftward side of our politics, observing that the squaring of this circle is accomplished by the appeals to safety promised by technocracy, which is considered the only source of truly reasonable approaches to any problem.

Continue reading "Jeremy Beer on Technocracy, Liberalism, etc." »

Impermissible Ideas

As it always had the potential to do, the philosophical and religious neutrality which is the ostensible framework of the American system is collapsing. See this post by Rod Dreher, one of many in which he describes the movement in big-time journalism to full-on advocacy for various left-wing causes. Here's an anecdote:

All this put me in mind of a conversation I had maybe 15 years ago, when I was a columnist and editorial writer at The Dallas Morning News, with a Millennial writer there. He knew that I was a conservative, and I knew that he wasn’t, but none of that mattered. I mentioned to him one day that I thought the paper’s coverage of the gay marriage issue was one-sided, and had become a matter of pro-LGBT advocacy journalism. He agreed that it was one-sided, but told me that he didn’t think there was a legitimate other side. I pointed out that we lived in a rather conservative part of the country, and that most of our readers took the opposite position on gay marriage (this was around 2005, I think). Were they all bigots who didn’t deserve to be consulted in our reporting? Yes, he said. If the paper was reporting on the Civil Rights movement, he said, would we feel morally and professionally obligated to seek the views of local KKK leaders?

Continue reading "Impermissible Ideas" »

Sunday Night Journal, October 29, 2017

Tonight I'm bringing in a guest speaker: Ryszard Legutko, author of The Demon In Democracy, which I've just read and which I think is a very important book. Off and on for a few years now I've published the occasional post categorized as "What Is Actually Happening." The tag refers to a remark by the late Kenneth Minogue (Australian political scholar) which was a sort of variant of Orwell's observation that "To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle." Minogue said 

The basic question in life is "What is actually going on?" and it often requires a great deal of time to pass before one can find the answers.

I changed "going on" to "happening" just because I think it sounds better. Minogue seems to have been referring to events, to the course of history, not what I would call the basic question in life, which would be something along the lines of "What's it all about?" But it's a pretty important one, especially in a time of great change. You could consider it as part of the task recommended in Matthew 16:3: to read the signs of the times.

Legutko is a Pole, about my age, who grew up under communism, then experienced the end of communism and its replacement by...what? Well, that's what the book is about. Over the years he had noticed certain disquieting similarities between the communist and liberal-democratic ideologies. And after the fall of communism he noticed how easily and successfully its former functionaries assumed a role in running the government. In an overly-condensed and simplified nutshell, he asserts that the liberal-democratic system has been transformed from a theoretically neutral mechanism for implementing government by the people into a utopian ideology. 

I'll let the quotations which follow explicate that observation. 

In this view, today also consciously or unconsciously professed by millions, the political system should permeate every section of public and private life, analogously to the view of the erstwhile accoucheurs of the communist system. Not only should the state and the economy be liberal, democratic, or liberal-democratic, but the entire society as well, including ethics and mores, family, churches, schools, universities, community organizations, culture, and even human sentiments and aspirations. The people, structures, thoughts that exist outside the liberal-democratic pattern are deemed outdated, backward-looking, useless, but at the same time extremely dangerous as preserving the remnants of old authoritarianisms. Some may still be tolerated for some time, but as anyone with a minimum of intelligence is believed to know, sooner or later they will end up in the dustbin of history. Their continued existence will most likely threaten the liberal-democratic progress and therefore they should be treated with the harshness they deserve....

I should note right away that the "harshness" he describes is not in the form of violence, prisons, and concentration camps, but rather in exclusion, silencing, and social, economic, and legal pressures which limit or deny any public role or presence to the outdated, useless, and dangerous. The liberal-democratic ideologue sees himself as "a vigorous youngster transforming the world." He  

...feels like a part of a powerful global machine of transformation. He not only understands the process of change better than others and knows how to organize the world, but also...can easily diagnose which phenomena, communities, and institutions will disappear and, when resisting, will have to be eliminated for the sake of the future. Therefore he reacts with indignant pity toward anyone who wants to stop the unstoppable. He indulges in a favorite occupation of the youngster: to criticize what is in the name of what will be, but what a large part of humanity, less perceptive and less intelligent than himself, fails to see.

Legutko pauses here to make it clear that he is not denying the achievements of liberal democracy, or the brutality of communism, then continues:

This youngster, however, fails to notice that at some point this system, or rather the arrangement of systems covering many variants, became haughty, dogmatic, and dedicated not so much to the resolution of political conflicts as to transforming society and human nature. It lost its prior restraint and caution, created powerful tools to influence every aspect of life, and set in motion institutions and laws, frequently yielding to the temptation to conduct ideological warfare against disobedient citizens and groups. Falling into a trap of increasing self-glorification, the system began to define itself more and more against its supposed opposition, i.e., all sorts of nonliberal and nondemocratic enemies whose elimination was considered a necessary condition to achieve the next level of ideological purity. The multiparty system was gradually losing its pluralistic character, parliamentarianism was becoming a vehicle of tyranny in the hands of the ideologically constituted majority, and the rule of law was changing into judicial arbitrariness.

The "youngster" is transforming the system into something it was not and was never intended to be. He 

...infuses the old political institutions with new energy and injects them with new ideological content while remaining notoriously unaware that under new circumstances, these new institutions are no longer what they once were and that they serve a new purpose.

When I read those passages, the "youngster" immediately acquired a face: that of Barack Obama. His many idolizers will never see it, but to those who did not fall under his spell (I once likened him to Saruman), Obama exuded exactly the sort of arrogance Legutko describes. He was not malicious, or not very; he didn't want to exterminate or imprison those who resisted his wisdom. He was only serenely certain that he was right, and that anyone who disagreed with him either was malicious or just didn't understand. He would have preferred that they understand and obey. But if they didn't, he would roll right over them if he possibly could. And his followers, already of like mind, and infatuated with his rhetoric and his racial cachet, agreed: no one could decently oppose Obama, or the measures he proposed for "fundamentally transforming" the United States. Those who did so were indecent, not just mistaken: either out-and-out racial bigots, or bigots-at-large, generally reprehensible people, and of course quite stupid. At very best, they were fools who didn't know what was good for them ("cling[ing] to guns or religion," as Obama so famously put it, in words that clearly showed his disdain for at least half the people he wanted to govern).

The contraception mandate included in the mountain of regulations implementing Obamacare was a perfect case study in the process described by Legutko. He (not him directly, but his administration) needn't have done it; he could have left things as they were for the small number of employers who were affected by it, and made other arrangements for the very small number of employees who might have been inconvenienced. But the administration chose to force the issue. The Catholic Church and other Christian communions are, in the eyes of committed progressives, precisely the "institutions [which] will disappear." The "arc of history" will inevitably see to that; in the meantime, a shove may be needed here and there. The mandate seemed to be a situation where the administration wished to exact obedience, to establish the principle that such decisions were for it and it alone to make. As James Capretta says, it was "an unnecessary fight that backfired," and it probably had some influence in giving us President Trump.

Legutko, I should note, is to a great extent talking about the European Union, and he notes somewhere that the United States is a little different. What he describes as the liberal-democratic ideology is generally called just "liberalism" here, or "progressivism," or "the left." But it's very similar. The biggest difference in our situation seems to be that there is more, and more intense, opposition to the program here, as the contraception fight indicates--not necessarily coherent or wise opposition, of course and unfortunately.

The passages I've quoted are from the opening pages of the book. Now I'll jump ahead to the end, in which Legutko considers the situation of Christianity:

If the old communists lived long enough to see the world of today, they would be devastated by the contrast between how little they themselves had managed to achieve in their antireligious war and how successful the liberal democrats have been. All the objectives the communists set for themselves, and which they pursued with savage brutality, were achieved by the liberal democrats who, almost without any effort and simply by allowing people to drift along with the flow of modernity, succeeded in converting churches into museums, restaurants, and public buildings, secularizing entire societies, making secularism the militant ideology, pushing religion to the sidelines, pressing the clergy into docility, and inspiring powerful mass culture with a strong anti-religious bias in which a priest must be either a liberal challenging the Church or a disgusting villain. 

The triumph of anti-Christianity seems to favor [a] conciliatory approach.... The only option left for Christians to maintain some respectability in a new world was to join the great progressive camp so that occasionally they would have an opportunity to smuggle in something that could pass for a religious message.

But this conciliatory attitude on the part of Christians is certainly wrong if it is motivated by the conviction that the current hostility to religion is a result of misunderstanding, social contingencies, unfortunate errors committed by the Christians, or some minor ailments of modern society. The truth is that all these phenomena, as well as other anti-Christian developments, are the genuine consequences of the spirit of modernity on which the liberal democracy was founded. Modernity and anti-Christianity cannot be separated because they stem from the same root and since the beginning have been intertwined. There is nothing and has never been anything in this branch of the European tradition that would make it favorably disposed to Christianity.....

Therefore, whoever advocates the conciliatory strategy today fails or refuses to see the conditions in which Christians have been living. It is utterly mistaken to take the position that many do: namely that the Church should take over some liberal-democratic ingredients, open up to modern ideas and preferences, and then, after having modernized herself, manage to overcome hostility and reach people with Christian teachings. One can see why this plan has gained considerable popularity, but whatever its merits, it cannot succeed. 

There follows a brief discussion of the conciliatory path followed by Vatican II and since. But

All these changes, however, did not blunt the anti-Christian prejudices that the liberal democratic spirit had been feeding on. nor did they entice more people to enter the Church to strengthen the already-decimated army of the faithful. The good things that were expected to happen did not happen. They did not--let me say it again--because they could not. An aversion to Christianity runs so deep in the culture of modernity that no blandishment or fawning on the part of the Church can change it. 

I'll leave you with this amusing picture of those who attempt the conciliatory path, the "open Catholics":

Cardinal Wyszynski, being under an enormous pressure, was yielding to communists, but finally said Non possumus ["We cannot," according to Google Translate]. Looking at the open Catholics, it is hard to imagine that they would ever be able to utter such words, let alone think about them, no matter how far liberal democracy pushes its anti-Christian campaign. One should rather think of the open Catholics as a group of cheerleaders with funny pom-poms, similar to those that one can see at games in American, encouraging their favorites to fight for progress.

Actually I don't think it's quite that bad; I think a lot of bishops would in fact say "Non possumus," at least right now.

I don't intend this post as any sort of call to arms, except in the spiritual realm. These trends are not going to be stopped or reversed by political work. Nor, it shouldn't really need to be said, will denouncing and defaming the opposition, who are, in general and in my experience, very decent people sincerely "working for a better world" (a phrase which provokes so much cynicism in me that I have to remind myself that it is in fact a desirable thing, and that it's only disagreement about the definition of "better" that makes me cynical.) And I certainly don't mean to encourage the paranoia and excessive alarm which is all too present in Christian circles these days. I just think it's important to understand the situation, to see things as they really are. It's part of being wise as serpents and harmless as doves. 

I won't go quite as far as to say that everyone should read this book. I'll narrow it down a little: if you have enough interest in the general topic to read an entire book about it, you really should read this one. It's not that long, by the way, a little under 200 pages. And it's full of sharply illuminating observations. I must have marked fifty passages in it.

Rod Dreher has discussed Legutko often, and solicited some email comments from him soon after Trump's election. His remarks are very perceptive, I think. You can read them here, starting at the paragraph which opens "After the U.S. election."


There's one thing I would add to Legutko's appraisal: the religious nature of what he calls the liberal-democratic ideology; he suggests this only in passing, but I think it's very important. As people who read this blog regularly have heard me say many times, contemporary progressivism is for practical purposes a religion. What we are and have been witnessing is a struggle between two religions, the replacement of one predominant way of looking at the world and at man by another. Mankind will always form a culture, and a culture necessarily has a unifying vision, and by definition it can only have one. (The supposedly "multicultural" model requires a single master culture which encompasses and governs all the sub-cultures, and which happens to be the liberal-democratic culture.) If things continue to move in their current direction, what is actually happening now will eventually be recognized as a transition like that in which Christianity became the religion of the Middle East and of Europe. This is hardly a new observation, having been made by many thinkers for well over a hundred years now. 

What Is Actually Happening

The formerly all-, or perhaps all-too-, American Disney company can get along with brutal dictatorships but not Christians. That goes for Coca-Cola, Home Depot, Salesforce, Unilever, CNN, Apple, and others--including the National Football League (!). Have ordinary conservatives figured out yet that corporate America is as big a proponent of liberal social doctrine as the government?

It's becoming routine for the media to put "religious liberty" in quotation marks, at least where Christians are involved.

A National Enquirer story about Ted Cruz being unfaithful to his wife got lots of attention last week, with people pointing out that the Enquirer was right in several similar cases in the past (e.g. John Edwards). So it's odd that this story about Hillary Clinton got no attention at all as far as I know. Really odd. I just can't figure it out. (Hat tip to Neo-neocon.) 

 (See this post for an explanation of the title of this one.)



The Tyranny of Liberalism: A Symposium

I think I'll let this be my last post on this book for now. It deserves a lengthy and well-considered review, but for various reasons I don't feel up to that. So I'll just point you to a series of essays at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute which comprise a pretty good discussion of the book. 

Part One, by Paul Gottfried, makes an important point:

In my opinion, Jim underestimates the power of transformed Christian narratives and replacement theologies in trying to explain contemporary social and political behavior. Multiculturalism, together with its disparagement of a specifically white Western civilization, is not so much about pleasure-seeking and material gratification as it is about recognizing and expiating sin. Although my own examination of modern political life started out by looking at the ideologies of public administration and changing power-relations, I was led eventually into noticing the religious dimension of my area of study. Secularized Christianity does not remove the presence of Christian concepts of guilt, sin, and atonement but has the result of turning them into ludicrous PC caricatures. Without necessarily rejecting Jim’s picture of the degeneration of liberalism, I am more struck by the kind of degenerate Christianity that has accompanied this process.

Part Two, a fairly critical appraisal by William English, raising some reasonable objections. I think most people reading The Tyranny of Liberalism will share some of his reservations, and in particular the fundamental one raised by the title: is it really reasonable to accuse liberalism of tyranny? Isn't that a bit, or more than a bit, over the top? Even if we set aside that particular word, are those of us who see a coercive element in liberalism (an element which is clearly growing with respect to religious freedom,) over-reacting, being a little hysterical or paranoid? 

...despite the long exegesis Kalb develops of liberalism’s vices, which includes numerous comparisons to Soviet tyranny, the limited examples he draws on lead one to think that if a handful of still debated policies were reversed, he wouldn’t have much to complain about. Absent affirmative action, abortion, gay marriage, and bureaucratic overregulation liberalism might not look so bad. Their inevitability in a liberal regime needs to be better established, although Kalb is certainly right that these issues won’t be resolved to his satisfaction anytime soon. Nonetheless, before lobbing the polemic accusations of liberal tyranny, Kalb might consider the old moral of the “Boy who Cried Wolf.” Hyperbole has long been a strategy of many of the leftists Kalb despises, who equate any inequality with racial apartheid and every military action with genocide. Likewise, it is perhaps a stretch to see in every gauche display of political correctness a systematic march towards tyranny.

That last sentence is true, certainly. But English doesn't really do justice to Kalb's argument. His point is not that government gets obnoxious and in the way in a few specific situations, but that it has become a sort of net which gently but comprehensively and powerfully restricts numerous normal and healthy social impulses, and that this is because it dishonestly insists that its own notion of ultimate values prevail while claiming to be neutral. (He does not dwell on "bureaucratic overregulation" in the sense that one would hear those words in the usual right-wing context, which is usually about business specifically.) 

If one considers, for instance, the very tight restriction on religion in public schools, there are ample grounds for calling the situation tyrannical even if one does not want to label the entire system as a tyranny, in total. Religion, especially Christianity, is considered by secular elites to be a sort of toxin of which even trace amounts are too many in any government-supported institution (except where it is isolated for study in a laboratory). Yet where locally-supported public schools are concerned, it is a pretty long stretch from "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion" to the prohibition of any religious exercise in the schools. Yes, I know most public schools were once effectively Protestant, and this was bad for Catholics. But is it really such an abuse if a mainly Protestant community wants its religion reinforced by the schools it provides? The fact that only religion is treated this way, and that any number of values-laden projects such as "diversity" and ecological awareness are acceptable (at least in principle) for propagation in the schools, is an indication of the dishonest coercion to which Kalb refers.

These are not just matters of subjective preference and trivial impact. Our culture has now reached a point where if you want to raise children without having them exposed to hard-core pornography, you are all but powerless. It can be done only through an unfeasible and generally unhealthy degree of isolation. The law will not help you at all. 

Part Three is strong praise from James Matthew Wilson, who writes for Front Porch Republic. It might actually be the best place to start for a good overview of the book, especially its diagnostic sections.

Part Four is Kalb's reply to English. In the course of responding, he gives a good brief summary of his prescription, his "what is to be done?" segment of the book, which I haven't mentioned so far:

[English] is shocked by the minimalism of my practical political suggestions. He should not be. There is no technocratic cure for technocracy. If “social policy” is the problem the solution cannot be point-by-point realization of a preferred design for society through intelligent application of available resources.

What is needed is a better—less liberal, less technocratic, more natural, more traditional, more transcendentally-oriented—outlook and way of life. In the book I sketch out how something better could come about, what we could do to promote it, and why Christianity (and more specifically Christendom) is the way to go.

Such discussions relate mainly to pre-political aspects of life. The specifically political contribution to the process is necessarily limited. On that front what is needed are changes that make it possible for non-liberal ways and standards to survive, develop, and take hold. If we are stuck going the wrong direction and heading toward a cliff, the immediate practical necessity is to unlock the steering so we can start turning around.

Once that is done we need, of course, to decide where specifically we should head. So we must discuss how a tradition becomes adequate to human life and sufficiently authoritative to order society.

I expect most people reading this will be immediately wary of the suggestion that "Christianity (and more specifically Christendom) is the way to go"--not necessarily because it raises the fear of "theocracy" (much-abused word these days) but because of the oft-expressed warning against using Christianity as a means toward an earthly end. If I'm not mistaken, Screwtape has some recommendations on that score. But this is a book about earthly things, and the necessity of referring to ultimate principles in their pursuit, and Kalb would be falling into the same fault as liberalism if he didn't point toward where those principles might reside.

 There's one particular item in Kalb's indictment of the post-1960s liberal society that I find very challenging, and continue to wrestle with. He blames "comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation" for its effect as a solvent of family and community, requiring that everyone be treated, in a memorable phrase I encountered thirty years ago, only and always as "neuter personnel and consumers."

Yes, but: that legislation was mainly intended to dismantle racial segregation and in general make the oppression of black people by white people more difficult. Was it worth it, if the principles brought into law at that point are now being used to suppress religious freedom? Could we have achieved something comparable in any other way? I don't know. It's a question that will continue to trouble me. 

Tyranny of Liberalism 5

In a chapter called "Blind Alleys," Kalb discusses various responses to liberalism. I'll be posting a bit from each of them. Here is what he calls "simple conservatism."

Simple procedural conservatism is a view for moderate worldly men attached to what is established but willing to accomodate new developments that seem sensible or inevitable. It aspires to a sort of mixed society, in which there is a place for the most helpful aspects of liberalism as well as nonliberal tradition. On ultimate standards, however, it is agnostic, with no final reference point other than what people do. As a result it tends to drift, and when social tendencies are liberal it becomes hard to distinguish such a stance from the moderate wing of liberalism....

However, such an outlook is not self-sustaining and cannot be relied on to keep liberal tendencies from going to extremes. Its lack of definite principles is its downfall. Simple conservatism is not seriously concerned with truth. It treats all social understandings, even the most basic, as negotiable interests. ...

The simple conservative is not impressed by philosophical claims. He reduces religion to a combination of traditional observances and optional private belief.... Simple conservatism is therefore unable to find a place to make a stand....

Simple conservatism has been unable to prevent the triumph of increasingly radical forms of liberalism. It has accepted the creation of a radically secular public order that treats substantive appeals to anything other than human will and scientific reason as irrational and oppressive.... It can no longer think or act coherently, because it cannot sustain substantive arguments at odds with those of its opponents.... Simple conservatism grumbles, drags its feet, and tries to moderate the disruption caused by implementing liberal demands, but it cannot argue against the justice of those demands or deny them ultimate victory. The most it can do is to try to delay and cushion its own defeat.

This is the sort of establishment conservatism which is a pretty powerful element in the Republican party, the element which is scorned by the more committed right as being just like the Democrats, but less; or as promising to reduce the speed at which we approach the cliff's edge. And the criticism is justified. It is also the kind of conservatism that accounts for some large percentage of that large percentage of Americans who describe themselves as "conservative," especially in my region, the South. And it is, tellingly, the element which earns praise from liberals for being "pragmatic" etc. I have a little sympathy for it--I've hoped that we might find "a place for the most helpful aspects of liberalism as well as nonliberal tradition." Recent developments, having to do with, for instance, same-sex marriage and religious freedom, incline me to think that the hope was misplaced. As Kalb says:

In recent decades the great compromise at the heart of American political life has unraveled. In spite of resistance, liberal principles came to be understood and applied more and more comprehensively, until social unity could no longer be based on vague Protestant moralism and religiosity and on the moral authority and halfway liberalism of those long-dead white male propertied slave owners, the Founding Fathers. A destructively pure form of liberalism became authoritative in American public life. Ruling elites came to understand conservatism as simple resistance to the plain demands of public morality and therefore as a threat to any tolerable public order.

The key period in the transformation was the sixties....

With that breakdown of the American compromise, the link was snapped between government and American tradition as a whole--and between government and the people. The American public order has consequently entered an enduring state of crisis that features a combination of anarchy and soft totalitarianism.....

The result of such developments was the appearance of a broad-based explicitly conservative movement for the first time in America.

More about that in another post, but I think it is insufficiently recognized that the rise of the religious right and other conservative movements in the 1970s was in great measure a defense of threatened goods, a response to the attack on all existing institutions by the radical movements of the '60s, not the mere reaction to loss of power, as it's generally described by the official recognizers.

Tyranny of Liberalism 4

I went off on another trail, as is my tendency, and haven't finished this book yet. But at this point, about halfway through, I think it may be the best book I've ever read on the contemporary social-political situation. Maybe that's not saying a lot, since I haven't read many such books. Suffice to say that it's one of the rare books that effect such a clarification of a heretofore muddy picture that it almost seems to have changed the way one thinks.

I find something on almost every page that I want to post here, but I won't do that; it would be far too much, and even too much would still not really do the book justice. So I really recommend that you read it. I'm now reading a section which discusses the situation of conservatism as a response to liberal encroachments, but before I say anything about that I thought I should back up and explain how Kalb is using the word "liberalism."

The title of the book is no doubt off-putting to some, who will take it as being just another shot in the right-left war of words--mostly shallow words.  But not so. He means liberalism in the fullest sense, encompassing the entire post-Enlightenment program of metaphysical skepticism and pragmatic reason. It has often been said, especially by certain Catholics, that the contemporary political argument is largely between left-liberals and right-liberals. Kalb more or less starts from that position (as do I). Although he is plainly on the right, he has divested himself entirely of the idea that still confuses much of popular conservatism: that the world of large-scale business is generally anything but a cooperator with the broad liberal program.

In an ideally technocratic world, material goods might be provided by a rational unitary system, but the collapse of socialism has convinced even leftists of the continuing necessity of independent enterprises and markets, including capital and labor markets. Advanced liberalism thus allows a great deal of local and particular discretion with regard to moneymaking activities. The necessity of allowing considerable autonomy to private economic decisions limits somewhat the ability of the state to enforce the rationalization of social life in the interest of equal freedom, and it has led to an emphasis on the role of liberalism as a quest for social rationalization within the limits of a market economy.

But experience has shown that markets can easily coexist with state control of other aspects of social life, and shrewd liberals welcome the arrangement. It is no mistake that liberalism has always been associated with markets. Classic socialism aims at a uniformity that interferes with the growth and expression of diverse preferences, and therefore only makes sense for populations too poor to have formed them. It embraces a solidaristic ethos that can valorize reactionary working-class attitudes about gender relations, race, culture, and even religion. Socialism's focus on economics also denigrates the value of liberal assaults on traditional culture. For such reasons, among others, the Soviet Union had lost its position of ideological and cultural leadership on the Left long before it fell.

Market economies, in contrast, provide a way to fund and extend the welfare state while multiplying preferences and satisfactions. They tend to dissolve customary connections and make all goods interchangeable through the medium of money, thus promoting rationalization on hedonistic and technological lines and simplifying the setting of state action. Large business enterprises, with their rational bureaucratic methods of hiring, training, management, supervision, and promotion, provide the state with a ready-made instrument for reeducation and other forms of social control. The only freedoms they require are the freedoms to cut production costs and to attempt to satisfy whatever desires people happen to have. Otherwise, they leave the state a free hand. Indeed, they often find that complex state regulation gives them a competitive advantage over smaller enterprises, whose more informal practices make compliance difficult.

World markets in particular are an immensely powerful engine of rationalization. They lay the groundwork for the comprehensive regulation of economic life, and eventually social life in general, by nation and increasingly transnational bureaucracies....

World markets help promote what is in effect a worldwide union of the ruling classes. By liberating national ruling elites from the influence of their people they allow their activities and outlook to be integrated with those of elites worldwide. 

(my emphases)

A few weeks ago I read a complaint by a labor leader that the Obama administration was giving exemptions from various burdensome requirements to large corporations, but was ignoring similar requests from his group. Poor fellow: he hasn't gotten the message that liberalism at its current stage of development has little interest in the working class. It is interested in those things that concern its own elites, who are making money off that class (and the middle class) at the same time that they regard it with the deepest suspicion of what they see as its essentially barbarous nature. They have a certain amount of somewhat distant concern, especially when a show of concern is politically useful against conservatives.

But in practice their immediate interest in the difficulties of the working and middle classes seems to be to use them as a justification for the further centralization of power. This would explain, for instance, the government's curious intransigence over the contraception mandate in the health care law, which is financially negligible and has greatly added to the general suspicion and opposition created by the law. The principle at stake is just as important to liberalism as it is to the Church.

Tyranny of Liberalism 3

To assert seriously the superior authority of transcendent truth or to reject "inclusiveness"--to say, for example, that homosexuality or the cultural effects of immigration are a problem--is to be excluded from respectable public life, viewed as potentially violent, treated as a threat to social order, and subjected to social, vocational, and occasionally (especially outside the United States) criminal sanctions.

But the state is not willing that any should be lost. Where there are such offenses, "The goal is to rehabilitate."

That ought to bring a chill to anyone not hopelessly in thrall to liberal convention.

Tyranny of Liberalism 2

The fatal flaw of liberalism was always its pretense or fantasy that the state could and would remain neutral on most questions of value, especially the big ones. This illusion was only possible because there was a broad consensus on most of the most serious matters in that realm. When, almost immediately after the establishment of the liberal constitutional order in the United States, a serious disagreement arose on a serious moral question, it led to civil war. I wonder now that the catastrophe didn't produce a deeper examination of the fundamental questions involved: what exactly is the moral status of the state, and by what right and according to what critera can it resolve a moral dispute? Lincoln's elevation of the preservation of the union as an ultimate principle has always struck me as strange, especially in a nation that less than a century earlier had separated itself violently from its rulers.

The pretense of neutrality is not only maintained today, but asserted ever more forcefully in the face of resistance to putatively neutral interventions in ever more situations, while liberal doctrines on questions of value have multiplied and solidified. Increasingly now we see imposition of those doctrines by legal force, with the imposer utterly untroubled by any sense of hypocrisy or contradiction. In The Tyranny of Liberalism, James Kalb explains that liberalism is now functioning as a state religion, "a system of moral absolutes based on a denial that moral truth is knowable."

As an established religion grounding a political order, liberalism tries to eliminate competing systems of religion and morality to the extent they cannot be reconfigured as representations of purely human aspirations and so converted into poeticized versions of liberalism itself. The effort is inevitable. Liberalism relies on claims of pellucid this-worldly rationality. Treating liberalism and equal freedom as simply rational, however, means that those who recognize other standards must be treated as irrational and not properly part of legitimate political discussion....

.... Simply by existing, transcendent religion and traditional morality are oppressive, since they affect the social environment by making it less tolerant and inclusive. They must be suppressed.

Suppression most often takes the form of insistence, backed by nagging and social pressure, that traditional faiths accept transformation into something radically different and, at bottom, trivial. They must be "tolerant," and "come to terms with modernity," which means that they must subordinate themselves to an official outlook that aspires to reorder the whole of human life. And they must accept their status as purely private pursuits with no implications for social relations or understandings of reality.

As if in illustration of Kalb's point comes the recent case in New Mexico in which the state's Supreme Court ruled that the Christian proprietors of a small photography business could not refuse to photograph a same-sex "commitment ceremony."  The concurrence written by a Judge Richard Bosson is striking. No clearer instance need be sought of the liberal doctrine that in case of conflict between religious and other rights, it is the religious that must give way.

 The Huguenins [the photographers] are compelled by law to compromise the very religious beliefs that inspire their lives. Though the rule of law requires it, the result is sobering. It will no doubt leave a tangible mark on the Huguenins and others of similar views.

On a larger scale, this case provokes reflection on what this nation is all about, its promise of fairness, liberty, equality of opportunity, and justice. At its heart, this case teaches that at some point in our lives all of us must compromise, if only a little, to accommodate the contrasting values of others. A multicultural, pluralistic society, one of our nation’s strengths, demands no less. The Huguenins are free to think, to say, to believe, as they wish; they may pray to the God of their choice and follow those commandments in their personal lives wherever they lead. The Constitution protects the Huguenins in that respect and much more. But there is a price, one that we all have to pay somewhere in our civic life.

In the smaller, more focused world of the marketplace, of commerce, of public accommodation, the Huguenins have to channel their conduct, not their beliefs, so as to leave space for other Americans who believe something different. That compromise is part of the glue that holds us together as a nation, the tolerance that lubricates the varied moving parts of us as a people. That sense of respect we owe others, whether or not we believe as they do, illuminates this country, setting it apart from the discord that afflicts much of the rest of the world. In short, I would say to the Huguenins, with the utmost respect: it is the price of citizenship.

Not the least disturbing feature of this smug little exercise is the utter blindness of the writer to his own intolerance and decided lack of respect for the Huguenins' consciences. He appears to think it obviously right that all that glueing and lubricating requires a "compromise" in which only the Christian side must bend. But there is nothing apart from an unstated liberal dogma which demands that conclusion. I have no doubt that the couple could have found another photographer. (In fact, they did.) It was obviously important to them that the Christians be penalized, and it is equally important to the unimpressive mind of this judge. He seems to think that the Christians should be happy to accept as their share of tolerance that they are still allowed to believe as they wish, though the state reserves the right to force them to act against those beliefs. Perhaps that is the sense in which he feels that a compromise has occurred; he seems to court admiration for his own largeness of spirit in acknowledging that the Christians, crazy though they may be, are sincere.

And then there's the irony of the claim that the ruling is consistent with an effort to prevent discord. Well, I suppose it is, if failure to accept the liberal consensus equals discord. The judge sounds pretty pleased by the thought of that "tangible mark." A touch of the financial and legal lash will perhaps keep the Huguenins in line, and make "others of similar views" think twice about committing similar crimes. For, after all, it is but a short step from the refusal to document a homosexual romance to racial segregation, lynching, slavery, the Holocaust, and the Inquisition.

"It is the price of citizenship," says the judge. $6,637.94 is the price for the Huguenins today; it will be higher, perhaps, tomorrow.

"On a larger scale," says His Honor, "this case provokes reflection on what this nation is all about." Indeed it does.

You can read the entire decision here. Bosson's concurrence is at the end.

James Kalb: The Tyranny of Liberalism

This is not a review, because I'm only on page 68 of this book. But I can't resist quoting from it. So far it seems to be the most incisive and thorough critique of liberalism I've seen. It's plain that liberalism, the doctrine of maximum freedom for all, is in fact exhibiting a paradoxical drift toward tyranny. And this book explains a great deal about what's happening, and how and why it's happening. I find myself wanting to quote great sections of it. But here's a taste. I'm sure I will be posting more excerpts.

So dominant is liberalism that it becomes invisible. Judges feel free to read it into the law without historical or textual warrant because it seems so obviously right. To oppose it in any basic way is to act incomprehensibly, in a way explicable, it is thought, only by reference to irrationality, ignorance, or evil. The whole of the nonliberal past is comprehensively blackened. Traditional ways are treated as the simple negation of unquestionable goods liberalism favors. Obvious declines in civility, morality, and cultural achievement are ignored, denied, or redefined as advances. Violence is said to be the fault of the persistence of sex roles, war of religion, theft of social inequality, suicide of stereotyping. Destruction of sex and historical community as ordering principles--and thus of settled family arrangements and cultural forms--is presented as a supremely desirable goal. The clear connection among the decline of traditional habits, standards, and social ties; the disintegration of institutions like the family; and other forms of personal and social disorder is ignored or treated as beside the point.

(Thanks to Rob G for having recommended the book to me some time ago.)